The Grape Leaf in Canton has 14 seats at outdoor tables under an arbor of grape leaves with clusters of red grapes hanging at intervals. They’re all plastic! But also incredibly charming, and a nice place to sit on a fine day and watch what’s happening in town.
Lebanon-born Pierre Aoun, 49, opened the spot a year ago in a former flower shop, and although he never cooked in restaurants before — he was a house painter — his versions of classic dishes are remarkably good. He credits his mother, Boghdana, 70, who worked at a number of Middle Eastern establishments before joining her son in this venture. Though Boghdana isn’t cooking full time, she goes to the restaurant, says her son, “to check up on everything. If she doesn’t like it, I cannot sell it. She has to OK everything.”
Perhaps that’s why mujadara ($7), the traditional brown lentil and rice combination, as plain and homely a dish as you’ll ever find, is so delicious here. The top is smothered in caramelized onions, which add a lovely sweetness to the grains. This famous dish, says Aoun, was a staple for families like his who didn’t have a lot of money, and needed something filling and healthy. In Lebanon, his grandfather planted the onions they used in mujadara, which was originally made with cracked wheat.
Aoun’s family came from Lebanon in 1986, and as he explains it, at home they never bought anything prepared, not even tomato paste. All the fruits and vegetables on their table were grown in their gardens in Aychieh, a mountain village in south Lebanon. Boghdana Aoun and her mother spent whole summers cooking, preparing food for winters they spent in Beirut.
The Grape Leaf seats 24 inside and though the system is to order at the counter and serve yourself, some of the young waiters do the serving too.
Grape leaves ($1) with rice and cracked wheat, or rice and ground beef, have exceptionally tender wrappers without a shred of chewy vein. Shanklish ($6), a spread of crumbled feta and the thyme-sesame seed blend za’atar, is divine on pita chips ($2.50), crisp, golden pieces sprinkled with sumac and thyme.
Manouchi flat breads ($3-$4) are to Lebanon, says Pierre Aoun, what doughnuts are to Americans. These delightfully chewy bread rounds, like little pizzas, are made on naan or gyro bread with a topping. You can get plain za’atar, shanklish, or jibne, a soft white cheese mixed with onion, tomatoes, and chiles, which melts into the dough and tastes quite wonderful.
The Aouns make delectable versions of both hummus ($5) and baba ghanouj ($6). If you order the hummus in a sandwich, the pita comes wrapped around sour pickles and pickled turnips, so there’s refreshing acid with the smooth chickpeas.
Chicken kebab platter ($11) on rice also comes with hummus and a salad, which makes it a generous dish with moist nuggets of bird. Beef kebab ($12) has meat that is too chewy to eat. Kibbe balls ($1.50), with their ground beef and cracked wheat filling, have a fine taste, but the texture has a reheated quality.
All the traditional phyllo pastries ($2 each) are homemade, as are beautiful buttery cookies ($2 each).
The mother and son are proud of their culinary heritage. Aoun is happy to explain his menu, and he seems nostalgic for the family’s mountain retreat in his village back home. On a clear night, when there’s a seat under the arbor, and the table is crowded with food, you can picture what it might have been like.
THE GRAPE LEAF
515 Washington St., Canton, 781-277-1700, www.grapeleafrestaurant.com/
restaurant. All major credit cards. Full handicapped access.
Prices Appetizers, soups, salads, flat breads $1-$23. Sandwiches, platters $6-$14.50. Desserts $2.
Hours Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sun noon-6 p.m.
What to order Grape leaves with meat, vegetarian grape leaves, hummus sandwich, mujadara, chicken kebab platter, manouchi flat breads, shanklish, pita chips.